Alessandra awoke the next morning felling more rested than usual. Not having to wake up in time for an early morning class certainly helped, but mostly it was the comfort of being back home with her Papa. There were far less ambient noises coming from the outside than she had grown accustomed to in New York. There was generally less tension in the air here. Even with the sketchy nature of the neighborhood, things just seemed calmer.
The aroma filled her nostrils and she inhaled deeply, sensuously. She opened her eyes, then closed them again. She pointed her toes to the far wall and stretched her legs. The soothing stretch worked its way up her back and she raised her arms above her head. Her entire body yawned and stretched for a glorious moment, then she let herself fall back into the warmth of her blankets.
Her eyes opened again and the yearning in her stomach convinced her to get up. She slipped on a robe and shambled her way into the kitchen. Papa was at the counter, scooping eggs from a large cast iron skillet into a grey stone bowl.
“Good morning, my dearest,” he beamed and extended a hand with a most welcome mug full of black coffee. “Black, just like you like it.”
“Thanks, Papa.” She took the coffee and brought it slowly to her lips, savoring the rich aroma and appreciating this luxurious way to start a day. The coffee was better, bolder than she was used to getting. Not having the expense of three children in the house apparently meant Papa could spring for the good stuff now.
She eased into a chair at the kitchen counter. Papa placed a plate in front of Alessandra. It was overflowing with eggs, bacon and sausage, a roll with butter and jam, and a cup of muesli and yogurt. Her eyes boggled.
“Papa, this is way too much.”
“Nonsense! I haven’t been able to cook for anyone but myself in months. This is nothing. I thought about making some tiramisu crepes to go along with breakfast, as a little pick me up.”
“I’m only one person, Papa. I don’t know if I can even eat this, much less a crepe or two on top of it all. Really, I’m not used to eating this much food.”
“Well, I figured you probably weren’t getting any good home-cooked meals in the city. Besides, this will give you a good start to your day. Any plans on what you might want to do today? We could go shopping over at Willowbrook.”
“No, thank you. I was thinking about contacting the Wayne P.D. to see if they have any needs this summer. I might be able to get college credit for an internship or something like that.”
“That’s a great idea. They’d be lucky to have you. Plus, you know these neighborhoods like the back of your hand.”
“Very true. I’ll give them a call and see what I can find out.” Alessandra finished her breakfast and headed back to her room so she could get showered and ready for the day.
Alessandra checked the Wayne Police Department’s web site and found the number she thought would be best to call.
A somewhat raspy voice picked up the line, “Wayne P.D. How may I direct your call?”
“Hi, my name is Alessandra Genovese. I’m a Criminal Justice major at John Jay in New York City, and I’m home for the summer. I’m interested in talking with someone about any possible internships or other opportunities you might have available.”
A pause lingered on the line, then finally the raspy voice said, “Please hold.”
After a long period of repeated pre-recorded community announcements and safety advisories while she waited on hold, the line was picked up. A man’s voice with a slight hint of a Brooklyn accent answered, “Officer Kelly speaking. How can I help you?”
Alessandra re-introduced herself using the same script she had said to the first person who answered the line. Officer Kelly responded tersely, “Internships had to be applied for months ago. Sorry, there’s nothing left.”
Alessandra’s bright disposition fell. “I see. I was at school and I didn’t know there was a deadline. I didn’t even know until recently that I was coming home this summer. We had a loss in our family this past January, and-”
“Wait,” Kelly interrupted, “Genovese? Are you related to the girl we found in Packanack Lake?”
Alessandra’s jaw clenched. The coldness of Officer Kelly’s matter of fact delivery about her baby sister’s death felt like a cat clawing her soul. She took a breath and remembered such tragedies were just an objective part of his job.
“Yes, sir, I am her older sister.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. It must be terrible for you and your family.”
A pause hung in the air between them. Kelly sighed, “Look, I might be able to do something to help you. It ain’t nothin’ official or anything, but we do allow ride-alongs sometimes. Maybe you could come on a few patrols and see what you think. How would that sound?”
Alessandra perked up again, “Yes, that would be nice. Thank you, Officer Kelly. What’s the next step?”
“Let me check with the higher ups and see. I’ll give you my cell number. Send me a text with your contact info.”
Officer Kelly gave Alessandra his cell number and said he was looking forward to driving her around town. She texted him her phone number and email address, and thanked him for taking the time to speak with her.
About an hour later, she received a text message from Officer Kelly. It said that Thursday or Friday in the afternoon and early evening would both be possible. Alessandra confirmed for Friday, and thanked the officer again.
At three o’clock on Friday afternoon, Alessandra waited in the Wayne P.D. municipal building parking lot. She was dressed professionally but comfortably, as instructed. Officer Kelly’s cruiser pulled up a few minutes later. He leaned over to the passenger door and pushed it open from inside of the car. Alessandra walked around and got in.
“Thank you again, Officer Kelly. I really appreciate this.”
“No problem. We usually reserve this kind of thing for high school punks who are on the at-risk side of the crook-o-meter. It’s nice to have a good egg with me for once.”
“Well, good egg might be stretching it a little. I did get one B this semester.”
“Oh, sweet Jeezus, we’d better start a file on you then,” Kelly said with a smirk. “What’s your major again?”
“I’m getting a B.S. in Criminal Justice.”
“A B.S.? You ain’t kidding,” he quipped. “This job can be total B.S. sometimes. Glad to hear they got official classes for it now.”
“It’s more of a specialized application than the B.A. program. That’s more general. I’m following a specialization in law enforcement.”
“Nice. You’re following the right cop around if you wanna see what the job is really like. We deal with all sorts of people around these neighborhoods. It can definitely get exciting on Fridays, too. People get out of work with their paychecks in hand and they cut loose. Sometimes they cut a little too loose, you know?”
“Oh, I know,” she said, remembering how wild their neighborhood weekend street parties could get. Their area wasn’t particularly affluent, and her neighbors were from a wide variety of backgrounds. One of the things they all seemed to have in common was a need to let their hair down on the weekends.
Officer Kelly regaled Alessandra with story after story about the weird and/or awful things that happened at just about every street corner they passed. Alessandra thought he seemed rather jaded for someone as young as he appeared to be. She guessed he might be in his late thirties or early forties at most. From the way he talked, you would think he was much older and worse for wear.
At one point they drove along the shoreline of Packanack Lake, and Alessandra stared blankly at the water. She hadn’t been back to the lake since Daphne’s death. The water stared back, expressionless, callous, devoid of remorse. She bowed her head a moment and closed her eyes, willing a message of love from her heart to her sister.
“Hey,” Officer Kelly said, jolting Alessandra back to reality, “I forgot. I shouldn’t have drove this way. It’s just habit.”
“No, it’s okay. I can’t pretend this place doesn’t exist. After all, it’s just a lake.” She took in a cleansing breath and brought her head back up.
“Everybody’s lost somebody. It sucks. Believe me, I know.”
Here it comes again, she thought to herself. Yet another person sharing their death story with her. Ever since Daphne killed herself, suddenly everyone thinks Alessandra wants to talk about their experiences with death. Predictably, Officer Kelly had an inexhaustible supply of death stories about fellow officers, friends and family members, even strangers. Alessandra kept nodding, but quickly tuned out.
As evening approached, Officer Kelly and Alessandra stopped at a fast food hot dog joint on Hamburg Turnpike. Apparently it was Officer Kelly’s go-to dinner choice, though to his credit, you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He was in excellent shape, and was quick to describe his exercise routine to Alessandra when she saw him plow mercilessly into his second chili cheese dog.
In the fast food business parking lot next door, a group of young men started getting louder. A couple of them were getting into a heated argument. Voices were rising, and things were starting to look like they might get ugly. Officer Kelly side eyed the group while he worked on his second chili dog. Without a word and without his eyes leaving the group, he shoved the last bite into his mouth, wiped his mouth with a napkin, then got up from the table and exited the restaurant. He headed toward the group of young men, adjusting his belt as he strode in their direction. Alessandra got up, put their trays on top of the trash bin, and followed him out.
As the police officer approached, the young men split apart and a couple of them ran away in different directions. Officer Kelly drew his gun, but kept it pointed straight upward. The remaining young men all put their hands in the air.
Officer Kelly called out as he narrowed the distance between him and the young men, “I don’t care who started this. I’m ending it. Now.” He pointed a finger at the largest man in the group. “You. On your knees. Now.”
One of the other young men, who had started recording the initial disagreement with his phone, aimed the device in the officer’s direction.
“Get that camera off of me, boy.” Kelly snarled, holstering his pistol.
“Boy? Excuse me? You know this ain’t 1953, right? We got rights now, in case you ain’t heard yet!”
Kelly gritted his teeth, and Alessandra could sense he was about to double down instead of deescalating the situation. Kelly took out handcuffs and approached the young man who had gotten down on his knees.
The young man with the camera said, “You see? We ain’t done nothin’ wrong, and big bad Barney Fife is gonna bust an innocent black man just to show us how big and bad he is. Social media is gonna have a field day with you, Jack! Smile for the camera!”
Kelly finished handcuffing the first man then quickly and aggressively got up and stepped to the young man with the phone. Kelly got nose to nose with him and said, “Turn it off. Now.”
“I got rights. You’re in my personal space, Dirty Harry,” the young man defiantly barked, standing his ground. Officer Kelly grabbed the phone out of the man’s hands and threw it hard to the ground.
“You have no personal space when I’m around. Do you feel me, bro?”
“Officer Kelly!” Alessandra heard a voice shout out, then realized with horror that the voice was her own.
Officer Kelly looked at her, narrowed his eyes, then turned back to the young man. He grabbed the young man’s shirt and moved him backward. He addressed all of the men, “Don’t let me catch you here again or I’ll bust you on the spot.”
“I’m free to go where I please. I ain’t done nothin’ and you know it. And you owe me a new phone, Officer Kelly. I’m reporting you, Officer Kelly.”
Kelly stepped into the man’s face again and through clenched teeth said, “Get outta here before I find probable cause to stick my foot up your ass.”
He pushed the young man back roughly, causing him to fall backward into the building’s facade. The young man got up quickly. Kelly put a hand on his baton and tapped it, making the man think twice before retaliating. The man stooped down, grabbed the remnants of his phone, and walked quickly away.
“Evidence! This is evidence, you racist Nazi asshole!” the young man shouted back from a safe distance, holding up his broken cell phone as he ran away. Officer Kelly removed the handcuffs from the large man, who walked backward slowly away from the policeman. Kelly turned and walked past Alessandra, back toward the hot dog joint and his parked cruiser.
She stood frozen in place, not knowing what to do. A middle-aged black woman came out of the restaurant, wiping tears from her cheeks and heading toward her car.
“Are you okay? Do you know those guys?” Alessandra asked.
“What the hell do you care? Just because I’m black I automatically know every black kid in the neighborhood? Are you with that cop? If you think you’re on the right side you couldn’t be more wrong.”
The woman got in her car and sped away, leaving Alessandra standing there, utterly dumbstruck.
What just happened? Why did Officer Kelly go after them like that? It wasn’t even the big guy that was doing the arguing.
“You comin’ or not?” Officer Kelly shouted, leaning out from the open door of his cruiser. Alessandra stared at him, jaw agape, saying nothing. She stood frozen, not knowing what to do. Kelly got tired of waiting and dismissed her by throwing his hand up in the air. He slammed the passenger door shut, got in his car, and sped off.
Alessandra stood in the parking lot, alone, and in shock.
Papa pulled into the hot dog joint parking lot and picked up Alessandra. During the drive home, she didn’t say a word. Papa didn’t push her. He knew when his daughter was consumed in thought and that she would share those thoughts with him when she was ready. They pulled into the driveway and Papa started to get out of the truck. Alessandra didn’t budge.
“Are you coming inside, or shall I bring you a sleeping bag?” Papa said with a nudge to Alessandra’s arm.
“Not funny.” She exited the truck and shut the door. Papa met her in front of the truck and put his arm around her, walking her into the house.
Inside the living room Papa said, “I’m sorry you experienced that, but I’m also not completely sorry. Police work is risky, and sometimes it wears on people. The nature of the job can attract the wrong kind of people, too. Sometimes their judgment is bent in certain directions because of experience, or prejudice, or both. I can’t guess why the officer acted that way, but that wasn’t an isolated occurrence. It happens all the time, all over the world.”
Alessandra sat on the armrest of the couch. “I know, Papa, I just wasn’t expecting to see it here, firsthand. I wasn’t ready for it. Those guys weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just boys being boys. Tony acted like that a lot, and the police never treated him like that.”
Papa shrugged and replied, “People seem to have shorter fuses nowadays, and that includes the police. People are assuming the worst right out of the gate. Cops are being asked to do far too many things outside of what they should be doing. They’re on edge, they have good reason to be afraid for their lives, and they are all armed to the teeth. Some are abusing their power, which makes the rest of society mistrusting of the police, and that makes the problem even worse. The escalation from both sides might be reaching a breaking point.
“Cucciola, I never want to stand in the way of you joining the police force if that’s what you feel called to do. I know most of the police you’ve encountered throughout your life have all been good. But don’t forget, your experience was probably very different than those who don’t happen to share your skin color. The tensions have always been high between police and minorities. It just seems to be getting even worse now that social media has opened everyone’s eyes to it. People all have a breaking point, and we’re now seeing far too many officers finding themselves skating on that thin ice.”
Papa put his hand on Alessandra’s shoulder.
She set her own hand top of on his, “There are a lot of good cops too, Papa. Most of them are all very good people. I don’t know why this kind of thing is being allowed to go on.“
“It’s impossible for us to know,” Papa said. “We don’t know what kind of reprisals someone might face if they try and hold a fellow police officer accountable. The very few bad cops are making the whole police force look bad. I won’t lie, I worry about you joining the force.”
“Papa, I’ve been struggling with this for a little while now. I didn’t want to tell you because I wasn’t really sure what was eating at me. I don’t know if I should perhaps change to a different major, or…”
She paused, unsure of what she should share with him. She had never told him about the Balancers or Gabrielle or Nandini. She certainly hadn’t mentioned Nicholas or Chew-Barka. Her father was already going through enough without her laying something so fantastical and bizarre at his feet.
“Or what, cucciola?”
“Nothing important. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do, about today, and about tomorrow. I think I’m just going to go to my room for a while. Thank you for picking me up, Papa.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No thanks are required. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Alessandra got up, went to her bedroom, and gently closed her door.